English 24/7

English 24/7

I want to do everything perfect. If I mess up during a volleyball game, I tend to get in my head and bring myself down easily.

My grades have to be perfect. I am not content with a B+, it has got to be at least an A-. One ‘bad’ grade can ruin my entire day. Even though I know it is okay to mess up, I get upset with myself. However, in the end, there is one issue I get the most upset about when I mess up is my English. 

Coming from the Netherlands, my first language is Dutch. I started learning English in my first year in high school. I was 11-years-old. For three hours a week, I learned English grammar and vocabulary. Once English class started, you could only speak English. We had to write essays, read books, and have discussions. All in English.

You want to hear a funny story? Here it goes. When I had to choose where to go for high school, I visited a high school that offered their education in English. Students would not only have English class in English, but also biology, history, chemistry, physics, and geography. Everything. Even Dutch class was taught in English. I thought it was ridiculous. 

My parents wanted me to go to that high school. I said no. I did not want to do that. There was no way I was going to talk English all day long. All my friends were going to a different high school and I felt uncomfortable speaking English all the time. My parents did not listen to me. They forced me to do a test to see if my English skills were good enough to get into that English program. 

I aced that test. Out of 50 students, I was the best. I did not care at all because I was not going to participate in that program anyways. My parents got a call from the director saying she wanted to talk to me in person so we could discuss the program. 

I will never forget that day. It was on a Tuesday and it was really nice outside. Me and my parents rode our bikes to the high school and we had our chitchat with the director. She assured that I was going to do well in the program. I did not have anything to worry about because my English skills were pretty decent, she said. The director ended our conversation saying: “I would like you to be part of the program, Stéphanie. I expect great things from you.”

My parents and I left the room and I started balling my eyes out. I was so angry at my parents for not understanding me and respecting my wishes. I was the student, not them. I was going to be the one that would be in that program for six years, not them. I grabbed my bike and went home, still crying. 

It took one more heated argument with my parents and a lot of tears to convince them. I even yelled at them: “What do I need all that English for? I am not planning on studying abroad anyways!” 

Well, look where I ended up. 

Six years later, my parents dropped me off in Dobbs Ferry and all of a sudden I had to talk English 24/7. My English skills improved every minute. After one week, I started having dreams in English. Before then, I did not even know dreaming in different languages was a thing. 

There have been many times that people asked me where I am from. I always want them to guess and then most of them think I am from the United States. I take that as a huge compliment, because that means I do not have an accent. 

After those get-to-know-each other talks, I feel very confident and proud, but that feeling fades away very fast because then I think of the times I messed up in class or the times I have to explain myself three times because my first two attempts did not make any sense. 

This semester, I was offered a job on campus. Me and my friend were talking about it and he said: “Are you sure you can pull that job off? You know there is always a language barrier.” I know he meant it as a joke and I laughed it off but it did hurt in a way. 

When people correct me or when they say the little mistakes I make are ‘cute’, I do not know what to respond. My English will always be my biggest insecurity. I get embarrassed when I make a mistake, especially in class. There are so many times I know the answer to a question, but I am afraid that I mess up once I start talking so I let someone else go for it. 

Even now, writing this column. There is so much more I want to write down but I just can not find the right words for it. I think the words that I am using are too easy, like I am still in high school. My English vocabulary is limited and I hate it. 

Yes, my grades are great for an international student and there are many more times I get compliments than I get corrected but the moments I mess up are the ones I remember. I know the comments about the language barrier are jokes and they are always made by my friends, but still. Those are the moments the perfectionist in me takes over. It tells me that my English is not good enough and that I am basically a failure. 

Seconds before I tell the perfectionist in my head to leave me alone, it says one more statement:

“Your English would have been so much better if you just listened to that director that Tuesday.”